He made California art respectable

September 20, 2004 § Leave a comment

Sept 24, 1924 – Sept 17, 2004

Paul Mills, the former director of the Oakland Museum — who played a key role in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, curating its seminal exhibition in Oakland in 1957 — has died.

Mills helped shape two major California cultural institutions, the Oakland Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, serving as director of both. In an interview shortly before his death in 2004, he said his work in Oakland was his greatest contribution.

“Looking back on my career, the most important thing was creating that California collection at the Oakland Museum,” he said. “Second most important was creating the building,” its architecturally acclaimed home.

Focusing on California

Mills arrived in Berkeley in 1953 to begin graduate studies in art history. He took a part-time job at what was then the Oakland Art Museum, which soon turned into a full-time job, and then into a crusade to create a museum focused solely on California art.

Oakland “had a permanent collection of sorts,” he wrote of his first months there. “There were a dozen California paintings, good and bad, shading off to an attic full of unclaimed leftovers from years of competitive shows.”

Focusing on California made perfect sense to Mills, who was young and eager to make a name for himself and the museum.

“We wanted to be central to the works, the subject matter and the research sources,” he said. “That really meant doing something with California artists.”

‘That Local Crap’

The more established museums were not interested in California paintings.

“The Oakland Museum was built out of the back rooms of other museums,” Mills said. “Stanford had international experts who didn’t want that local crap.”

They were happy to free up space in their storage rooms by selling things — cheap — to Oakland. Mills recalled paying $175 for the first painting he bought. He acquired one of the major wall-sized paintings in Oakland’s collection for $750 from Stanford.

Mills proposed in 1954 that California be the sole focus of the museum. He got support from the community, which welcomed the idea of celebrating its heritage, but not from the art world, which thought he was dreadfully out of time by looking back to a provincial past.

Mills brought a scholarly background combined with a down-to-earth manner that together made him perfectly suited for the task of creating a museum of California from scratch. With a hard-working band of docents, he laid a historical foundation for the collection, combing through old newspapers and searching out descendents of artists.

At the same time, Mills grew to appreciate the connection between paintings of the California landscape and the landscape itself. “I remember going home one night when it was just beginning to get dark,” he said. “All of a sudden the world looked like those paintings. I was finding a genuine emotional relationship between the paintings and the landscape.”

Rewriting the History Books

When the reimagined museum opened in September 1969 in a modernistic new four-block home landscaped with gardens and fountains as the Oakland Museum of California — with separate art, history and natural science departments — even some of the critics saluted.

“The art section is going to realign the whole history of art in the United States,” wrote Alfred Frankenstein, the San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic. “All the books will have to be rewritten” to acknowledge the importance of California art. Frankenstein conceded the collection was built of “paintings which until recently were scorned and rejected.”

Finding the Figurative Movement

Early in his Oakland years, Mills had realized there were powerful artistic rumblings in his own backyard. Many of the most respected abstract painters were beginning to reintroduce realistic elements into their work. Richard Diebenkorn had returned to Berkeley and begun painting figures. David Park had already made the shift. Mills saw figure paintings and landscapes appearing in other studios.

In 1957 he curated “New Bay Area Figurative Paintings” at the Oakland Art Museum, which codified an emerging trend that would have reverberations far beyond the Bay Area, and which continue to be felt to this day.

The work was happening before his eyes, so there was little reference material for an art historian to consult. Mills decided to use his journalistic skills, sharpened during three years as a newspaper reporter. He interviewed the artists he invited to be in the show, then wrote a report on his visit to each studio and published it as a catalog of the exhibition.

“Their conversations were different from what they wrote, which was impenetrable,” Mills said. “It changed my whole attitude toward my work. I used the same approach in my book on Park. I said, ‘Nowhere will you use whom. Whom is not a conversational word.'”

A Definitive Statement on Park

Mills took a particular interest in the work of Park. He wrote his thesis on Park, later published as a book, The New Figurative Art of David Park.

“With Park, I was in a position to make a definitive statement, and I think I did,” Mills said. “Park I could read like a book. Diebenkorn was always a problem for me.”

In fact, Mills said, two of his worst decisions involved Diebenkorn. First was when he decided, in determining the purchase awards in a competitive show, to buy somebody else’s painting rather than Diebenkorn’s — “a many million dollar mistake,” he called it. The second was when he didn’t buy a Diebenkorn in the museum’s rental gallery for $750.

“All of a sudden our washing machine went out,” he said. “What were we going to do? Well, you can guess.”

Causes of All Kinds

A year after the triumphant opening of the Oakland Museum, in 1970, Mills resigned at Oakland and headed south to become the director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. He would find many successes there, too, as he once again began to build and burnish the reputation of a museum he knew he could make better.

He served as director of the Santa Barbara museum until 1982, then turned his full attention to the many local causes he championed.

After his wife Jan died in 1999, Mills came out as a gay man and became involved in gay causes in Santa Barbara. At his death he was battling a plan by the homo-hostile Dr. Laura Schlesinger to move her talk radio show to the Santa Barbara Wharf.

Mills had numerous other pet projects under way in his final days that had been postponed for various reasons through the years.

“It’s an immense satisfaction to give wing to some of these albatrosses,” he said a few weeks before his death. Despite his struggle with lung cancer, he said, “I’m actually having a hell of a good time.”

Mills died on September 17, 2004, a week before his 80th birthday.

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